At the age of 54, after being a professor for 21 years (17 of them tenured), I’m going back to school. I enrolled in a master’s program in counseling psychology, with the eventual goal of earning a counseling license. It’s a long slog – could be as long as 4 or 5 years, if I don’t really dedicate all my time to classes, licensing tests and supervised counseling – but I’m excited.
Towards the end of my academic career, I was beginning to think that I had nothing more to contribute to my students. I was teaching the same old same old, and had really lost enthusiasm for my topic. The students were often quite transactional – “what do I need to get this grade and credit?”- and the love of learning seemed to have gone from everyone’s eyes. Most students were American, and I realized that I really wanted to be teaching international students; that was my own background, and that was what I was most comfortable with.
Teaching in a professional school of public affairs, moreover, made me feel like a bit of a fraud; students wanted to find actual public service jobs with their degrees, and I was supposed to help them to do that. But after 21 years in academia, what did I know about public service job markets and career paths? I had consulted for various agencies here and there, but for years, had mostly focused my energies on publishing scholarly articles in top journals and taking care of my kids. That didn’t leave much time for building a rolodex of public servants, especially in the USA, which was not my area of specialization. But my students were American, and were heading to public service either in the midwest or, at best, Washington DC. I was having a real crisis of confidence.
The counseling degree I’ve enrolled in promises an opportunity of another kind. If I earn the license and turn out to be a half way decent therapist, I can help individual people with the tools I gain in school, but also with the wisdom I’ve gained from life experiences, including the many, many mistakes I’ve made along the way: at work, in my marriage, in parenting, and in all my human relationships.
For example: If I have a US military veteran as a client, I can draw on the three years I spent in the infantry myself, way back when (albeit in another country’s armed services) – I may have something to say that could be helpful, or at the very least, can listen intelligently.
If another client is a 50+ male going through a painful divorce, ditto – I’ve been through that shock and agony, and can listen to, and relate to, his suffering. If a father has challenges parenting teens, moving to a new country, dealing with grief… I’ve experienced all of those, to varying degrees. My life experience counts in this work, and can enrich my counseling efforts in a way that my experience crunching numbers or conducting field interviews for a scholarly article couldn’t help my public service students. I published reasonably well as a scholar, but my MA students at my last job didn’t care about that stuff, quite rightly. My research was entirely irrelevant to their future career plans.
My feeling is that public service graduate schools in the US are poorly conceived. They rely heavily on tenured faculty who strive to publish articles in the most competitive scholarly journals, but that is not what their students want. Instead, students are paying scarce money to learn the ins and out of working in the public service, and desperately want personal connections to the kind of people who can get them internships and jobs. Those are things that most “real” academics, who work hard for academic tenure and promotion based on highly advanced research, are unable to offer.
But back to starting graduate school at the age of 54 (almost 55, to be honest). I have only been in three (Zoom) lectures, and unfortunately, they were truly awful. As a reasonably decent lecturer for over two decades, I know how much work goes into preparing and delivering an excellent presentation. These presenters were not able to invest the effort, skill or time, for whatever reason. Instead, the three hours for each class were boring, unstructured, and hard to follow. But the material is fantastic, and the papers I have to research are going to be fun. My first, for a class on developmental psychology, is on the effects of divorce on males over the age of 50; what could be more relevant to my life? One of my other courses is on marriage and family therapy – I clearly need to take that course, as my own 25-year-marriage crashed and burned so spectacularly of late.
I’m going to try to get through the boring Zoom lectures as best I can while focusing on the assignments and reading. It’s also an exercise in humility. I held a privately endowed research chair in my most recent academic position, and prior to that, held a government research chair in Canada. I always thought of myself as heading, slowly but steadily, towards the pinnacle of my little academic pyramid. Now, I’m at rock bottom again – it doesn’t get much lower than this – and you know what? It is great way of washing away the accumulated lawyers of intellectual arrogance and returning to a more humble mental space.
I’ve needed a reset for a long time, and now I’ve finally got it.